This show only actually came to Broadway a few years after famed lyricist Fred Ebb’s death, but it was in the works in some form as far back as the Eighties, when it went under the working title Who Killed David Merrick? (that title was probably no accident…for those who don’t know, Merrick was the asshole producer to end all asshole producers, and I imagine a lot of the Broadway community wanted to kill him). This was the first of several Kander and Ebb project to be finished and brought to Broadway after Ebb died, and if it doesn’t live up to their biggest classics or even their minor gems like 70, Girls, 70, it’s still a lot better than their next show to reach Broadway, The Scottsboro Boys.
The book is by the uneven but talented playwright/songwriter Rupert Holmes, and it’s an amusing piece, a clever combination of backstager and murder mystery. Granted, the character types on hand are all familiar backstager cliches, with only Debra Monk as as the show-within-a-show’s producer really registering as a memorable character.
Also, I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that the one of the final revelations about who the killer is turns out to be really, really stupid, unsatisfying and untrue to the rest of the show. And frankly, a mystery with a rotten ending winds up feeling like a waste of time no matter how good the buildup was.
The show’s other weakness is that the score isn’t quite up to Kander and Ebb’s usual standards. That’s not to say there aren’t some good things in it. The hilarious “The Woman’s Dead”, the charmingly low-key “Coffee Shop Nights”, the stone-cold showstopper “It’s a Business”, and the Fred-and-Ginger love duet “A Tough Act To Follow” are all vintage work from the team, but the score’s high point is the touching ballad “I Miss the Music”, which, given that it’s about a composer missing his lyricist, has a deeply affecting real-life subtext.
But “What Kind of Man?”, a surprisingly vicious attack on critics, simply isn’t funny enough to make its viciousness palatable. Even worse is “He Did It”, which features some of the most wince-inducing rhymes of the team’s career. “Thinking of Him” is a pretty dismal ballad, and the generic showbiz anthem “Show People”, which unfortunately became the show’s best-known number after it was unwisely chosen for its performance on the Tony broadcast, is one of the most derivative and cliched songs Kander and Ebb ever wrote.
As for the songs in the show-within-a-show, “Thataway” stops the show cold, .but the Oklahoma pastiche “Kansasland” is actually kind of embarrassing, and “Wide Open Spaces” is a pretty blatant piece of generic filler. And the extended musical running gag “In the Same Boat” isn’t really worth the elaborate setup it receives. Yes, the three versions of the song sound fantastic when they’re finally sung in counterpoint, but their appearances before that point are mostly just annoying.
But in spite of these unfortunate flaws, the bulk of the show is quite entertaining and not at all hard to sit through, and the cast is absolutely phenomenal. Some of the most talented people on Broadway, including Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Jason Danieley, and Ernie Sabella were in this cast, and while everyone did top-notch work (particularly Monk), David Hyde Pierce in his greatest Broadway role utterly stole the show. For all its problems, I have to admit this is a pretty enjoyable piece of theater and a pretty respectable tribute the memory of the great Fred Ebb.